To mark five years since the start of the Syrian conflict, PEN International will be publishing a series of interviews with Syrian writers and journalists in its Syria’s Voices series.
Mohammad Habeeb is a prominent Syrian translator, with over ten years’ experience as a freelance translator and interpreter of Arabic-English/English-Arabic within the fields of literature and ideas. He has translated a number of well-known literary works into Arabic, such as works by T.S. Eliot, José Saramago, James Kelman, Sindiwe Magona, Erich Fromm, Moris Farhi, Carl Gustave Jung, Erich Fromm and others. He is also a poet and a writer, though he did not have the chance to publish his books in Syria and is a human rights activist, both in Syria and in assisting the UK-based organisation Reprieve in its campaigning.
Habeeb holds a Bachelor of Arts from the English Department of Tishreen University in Lattakia in Syria, and has worked as a school teacher in Syria, teaching writing and translation techniques for junior university students. Habeeb is a member of the Arab Syrian Writers Union (a society for translators), an editor and advisor to a publishing house in Lattakia.
In 1989, Habeeb co-founded the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and became the editor of the organisation’s underground magazine The Voice of Democracy. The organisation was primarily established to repeal the state of emergency in Syria which had been in effect since1 963, when the Baath party came into power in a military coup. The state of emergency suspended most constitutional protections in Syria and allowed the authorities to place restrictions on freedoms of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, travel and passage in specific places or at particular times; to arrest anyone suspected of endangering public security and order; to authorise investigation of persons and places; and to delegate any person to perform any of these tasks.
In 1991, Habeeb was arrested together with a group of other activists, for distributing a flyer criticising ongoing human rights violations and the conditions surrounding the re-election of Hafez al-Assad. Sentenced by an exceptional court, which lacked nearly all procedural guarantees for a fair trial, he was a prisoner of conscience for nine years. After his release, Habeeb lost his civil rights, being prevented from practising any public profession.
In the wake of unrest which broke out in Syria in 2011, Habeeb co-founded and was a leading member of Maan (Together), a peaceful movement to accompany the Revolution in Syria, and support Syrians’ peaceful demands. Habeeb automatically came under the scrutiny of the Syrian government because of his previous imprisonment, his continued critical writings and his calls for a peaceful change in the country. His family was constantly harassed and living under threat both from government soldiers, and various armed groups. Fearing for their safety, they left their family home, and moved around, staying at different locations, dependent on the good will of friends and family. In 2013, conditions for living and working became impossible for Habeeb, who contacted the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) seeking safety for him and his family so that he could continue his work. Mohammad Habeeb and his family arrived in Stavanger City of Refuge in August 2015.
PEN: It’s now five years since the Syrian conflict began and in that time 11.5% of the country’s population have been killed or injured according to recent report by Syrian Centre for Policy Research. Close to five million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and increasingly to Europe, where they are facing increasing hostility. For many watching the conflict the story looks very confusing. What is your perspective on the situation five years on?
Mohammad Habeeb: In the last five years, the Syrian people have paid a heavy price for the stupidity of their leadership, the clashes between regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), and international powers (USA and Russia). All of those factors together assassinated the Syrian people’s dream of freedom and democracy.
It seems that the coming decade will be very hard. The Syrian people will suffer more poverty, oppression and marginalisation. Reconstructing the country will consume most of the national fortune. The regime will be more corrupt even though it might seem democratic or liberal. Moreover, the Syrian people will not have the right to decide their future. The agreement between the power brokers such as the US and Russia, along with their allies will dominate the Syrian people’s sovereignty. Between the struggle for the loaf of bread, dignity and human rights and freedom of expression, the Syrians will face many barriers. In addition, the political parties, which are being established here and there nowadays, will work on the behalf of personal interests and their sponsor’s interests. The young generation will have to find their way to freedom and democracy in a jungle filled with traps and false slogans and projects.
PEN: Since the conflict began at least 90 journalists have been killed in Syria and countless more are in prison or reported missing. Syria is now one of the deadliest countries in the world for writers and journalists. However, your own story of persecution for your work as a writer and activist starts many years before the Syrian conflict began. What was the condition for freedom of expression in Syria when you first started your work as a writer and activist?
Mohammad Habeeb: When the Al Baath party came to power, it closed down all newspapers that were in Syria. Later, in 1972 it established a fake institution (National Progressive Front) which included all parties that agreed with him. Then it closed all outlets that allowed free speech or political activities. Since that time, the common joke in Syria was (what does “opinion” mean?). In Syria, you are free to praise the regime and the dictator. However, you are not free to criticize it. Anyone who criticized the regime would be punished. How and when? This depends on what you have said. There was a poet called (Hassan Al Khayer) who paid with his life in 1982 for a famous poem criticizing the ‘Regime’ and the ‘Muslim Brothers’. The regime imprisoned and killed him in Palmyra’s notorious prison.
Things went that way in Syria until now. You may lose your job or your life if you criticize the regime and its corruption. So writers had to depend on historical characters or stories to disguise their fictional works. Otherwise, they had to write about other things. Nevertheless, even those who published their work outside Syria, those works were prevented from coming into Syria. Even the Arab Union Writers in Syria was dominated by the regime and its security intelligence.
PEN: You spent nine years as a prisoner of conscience for distributing flyers criticizing the Assad government’s human rights violations. Did you ever think that you would end up in one of Assad’s prisons?
Mohammad Habeeb: Actually, yes. As we knew in advance- from the long history of oppression and human rights violations which we had witnessed- that there will be a price to pay for this work. Nevertheless, we did not expect it to be so savage and brutal. We expected to be imprisoned for (1) year as a maximum punishment (according to the Syrian penal code), or (3 years) as the worst. However, we risked it as we had a hope that our work would make a difference. We believed that someone should pay to open a gap in the wall, so we decided that we were able to. In addition, the world around us was witnessing dramatic changes, and we expected that Syria would, and should, accompany those changes. We wanted to contribute in developing the country peacefully, but the dictator, Hafez Al- Assad, did not like that thought and gave us the cruelest punishment as a lesson for the rest of the Syrians.
PEN: You continued to write while in prison. What kept you going during that time?
Mohammad Habeeb: It is the ‘hope’. The same thing, which pushed us to risk imprisonment to do our work. Moreover, there were some other colleagues out of prison. They kept working and trying their best.
PEN: When you left Syria did you feel that you were leaving permanently or did you feel like you would return one day?
Mohammad Habeeb: A man leaves his homeland desperate, but burdened with hopes. I think no one would leave compelled without taking with him all his wishes and broken or incomplete dreams. Anyway, I am not an exception. I left [Syria], but half of my thought and feelings are still there. I have left behind a 54-year life-story, family, friends, and the Syrian people. It is impossible to forget all and begin a new life as if you had been born again! We run away to the foreign country with a full and complete memory, but we develop a new one there. It is like having two mothers: the first one is always the most wanted, even when the second is more loving and kindhearted.
PEN: You were forced to flee your country with your family. What has that done to your sense of identity and to your writing?
Mohammad Habeeb: Identity, for me, is beyond geography. It is the human identity. Being born in Syria gave me my family, religion and the Syrian nationality. The same would have happened if I had been born in another country. Even when I was in Syria, I had the same feelings towards other peoples, their sufferings and wished I could have been a help to them as well. I think my identity will never change as ‘a man who was born in Syria’, but with universal human identity. That is because Syria, as a country, has witnessed many civilizations. The Syrian heritage is a universal one, like other ancient countries. Now, the new thing is that I live in a new homeland. Now, I have two families, many friends, and two nationalities and am free from a religious brand mark.
PEN: What are you working on now? Do you continue to write about Syria?
Mohammad Habeeb: Of course, I am still writing about Syria. Who can stop writing about what is going on there? Now, I am working on learning the Norwegian language. This consumes much of my time and capacity, in addition to translating some of my writing into English.
PEN: What do you hear from your friends or family who are still in Syria?
Mohammad Habeeb: All news from Syria is sad and despairing. That is what I get from all friends and family there. It is all about death, destruction, hunger and the debasing of society. Still, there are hopes and dreams that tomorrow will bring good news!
PEN: There have been many different responses to refugees fleeing Syria. What do you think the responsibilities of other countries are towards Syrian refugees?
Mohammad Habeeb: All these different responses are understandable, considering the situation in different countries. Nevertheless, this does not excuse those countries from their responsibilities towards the Syrian refugees. Still they are far better than the countries who have closed their borders to Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict like the Gulf Kingdoms. It is a double faced issue: a moral and a political one.
As a moral issue, it is a terrible immoral thing to do to block your border to innocent civilians who are fleeing a war you yourself participated in creating. It seems that those countries want to kill the Syrians! These countries are no less criminally responsible than the regime itself. They should be charged one day for this immoral and insane attitude.
However, those countries that are investing in Syrian blood, and supporting the regime or the terrorists have to approach this issue in a better way. They should stop trading the issue of Syrian refugees in their political election game. They have to inform their people about the benefit of getting those refugees, who were pushed to leave their countries, and would be a power in the work market, especially since most of them are young with professions, certificates or university degrees!
PEN: What do you miss the most about Syria?
Mohammad Habeeb: I miss everything still scratching in my memory. Actually it is a very active vivid memory, as the wound is still fresh and open. Mostly, I miss my family, friends and people there.